History of the Cotillion

From Birmingham to Boston, and Cleveland to California, the most prestigious rite of passage of young women in the African-American society has been the Cotillion, also known as the Debutante Ball.

Often the word “Debutante” invokes visions of days gone by in which parents “presented” their daughters in hopes to attract an eligible suitor within the social circle of the community. The world comes from the French word, “debuter,” which means “to lead off,” The tradition in the United States began in Philadelphia prior to the American Revolution, but soon after, many cities followed the trend. By the 20th century, African-American and Hispanic communities created their own events.

Over the years, the focus changed from matrimony to highlighting the accomplishments of the young women in their own right, with networking opportunities and scholarships to help further their success. Some cities rely on sororities to organize and mentor the young women; others have organizations solely devoted full-time to the producing Cotillion (girls) and Beautillion (boys) events.

In the Fort Wayne community, the Urban League was the host of many of the memorable Cotillions of the 1960′s. The tradition ceased during the 1970′s and returned to the community in the 1990′s under the guidance of Jack and Jill of America. As the membership of Jack and Jill changed in the past few years, several women who were familiar with Cotillions came together under the umbrella of the Friends of the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance to continue the tradition for another generation.

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